Let’s start with Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati: There’s no doubt in my mind that ETC’s staging last September of the first regional staging of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s powerful next to normal would be on the top of lots of lists for the best musical of 2011-2012. In fact, the hit Rock musical that plumbs the depths of mental illness gets a return engagement, June 15 to July 1. Tickets went on sale last week, so they might already be scarce.
ETC has another candidate for a top award, Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man. The play about Simon, a devoted former slave living in a ruined mansion in 1865 Richmond, Va., just after the Civil War and Confederate officer Caleb, the wounded son of Simon’s former master, had an extended run early this year. Caleb’s slave-owning family was Jewish and raised their slaves in that faith. Part of the story about freedom and responsibility involves a celebration of Passover. D. Lynn Meyers directed a particularly fine cast, led by Ken Early as Simon.
In February, UC’s College-Conservatory of Music staged Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods — a bunch of fairytales put through a blender — and wowed everyone who saw it, including panelists from the League of Cincinnati Theatres, who bestowed nine of their “in the moment” awards on it. The production featured a skilled crop of seniors directed by department chair Aubrey Berg in a clever staging that included a very funny cow, a handsome but empty-headed prince (John Riddle), a precocious Little Red Riding Hood (actually a freshman, Lawson Young) and a lascivious Big Bad Wolf (Blaine Krauss).
Woods would have gotten my vote as the season’s best musical.
Another Sondheim show overlapped with the CCM production, John Doyle’s staging of Merrily We Roll Along at the Cincinnati Playhouse. He used the same “actors as musicians” approach he had applied to Sondheim’s Company in 2006, a Playhouse production that landed on Broadway and earned a Tony Award. I liked it a lot, but Doyle’s nontraditional interpretations evoke strong positive and negative reactions. Everyone agreed that Merrily was skillfully performed and beautifully produced. The show, long seen as one of Sondheim’s few failures (its original Broadway run in 1981 was only 16 performances), is a showbiz tale of chasing success that has decidedly not resulted in happiness. Doyle’s cast, including Broadway veterans Malcolm Gets and Becky Ann Baker, helped Merrily pick up five recognitions from the League of Cincinnati Theatres.
The Playhouse’s Michael Evan Haney also staged a fine drama, Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues. The complicated, noir-ish tale of marital deceit and cryptic crime unfolded more clearly thanks to an accomplished four-actor cast. It was the kind of theater that took work to watch, follow and absorb, but I loved the challenging drama and multi-layered acting.
Know Theatre’s best production of the season was a “comedy of anxiety” by Allison Moore, Collapse, presented in March. Former artistic director Jason Bruffy returned to stage the funny, edgy script about people in the aftermath of the Minneapolis interstate bridge that dropped into the Mississippi River in 2007. A solid cast included local professional Annie Fitzpatrick in her Know debut and Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Brian Isaac Phillips as her neurotic husband. With comic finesse they reflected the world we live in, full of pain and doubt. Know’s current staging of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (review on page 24) would be another candidate for the season’s best musical.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company would be a contender, too, with strong offerings of several non-Shakespearean works. Its September opener, A Man for All Seasons, featured actor Bruce Cromer as Sir Thomas More. Since then, a second Jane Austen adaptation, Sense and Sensibility, was yet another hit for the classic company. The sisters Dashwood were wonderfully played by Kelly Mengelkoch (as reserved, reasonable Elinor) and Sara Clark (as willful and romantic Marianne). CSC’s breadth and depth of acting is on view in its current production of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (review on page 24) with 18 actors playing victims of the Depression and Mengelkoch and Clark adding their vocal and musical talents performing Bluegrass and Folk numbers.
Several more shows are in the pipeline, productions I’m sure would be getting due consideration if nominations were being rounded up.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: email@example.com